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University of North Carolina at Charlotte Capitalizes on More Bang for Fewer Bucks

Open source fits just right

For the University of North Carolina at Charlotte (UNCC), using technology to further the education of its 21,000 graduate and undergraduate students is nothing new.

In 1983, UNCC became the first U.S. university to electronically categorize its library, and for the past 10 years the school has offered numerous degree programs online.

A benefit of this commitment to technology is that members of the entire campus stays closely connected to each other and to the community-at-large. UNCC's 49er Express portal lets students access course information, grades, registration, financial assistance, and digital library collections and provides each user with e-mail and storage. Other IT systems include departmental intranets, databases for administrative records, and enterprise resource planning software. Immediate access to information and services critical to scholarship, teaching, and administration is just a click away for UNCC's 25,000 users. Of course, the downside of this strong interconnectivity is that the smallest system problem, let alone total system failure, presents a major problem for the entire university. Besides the toll it takes on the day-to-day functioning of UNCC, the amount of time and money that system administrators spend recovering from such events is enormous. Without strong monitoring and management capabilities, the lack of visibility into UNCC's diverse IT infrastructure spelled problems:

  • It experienced difficulty pinpointing and preventing security problems before they spread throughout the IT infrastructure
  • There was a high potential for system errors to snowball with far-reaching effects detrimental to the basic functionality of the university
  • There existed a big possibility that preventable IT outages could threaten the work of students and faculty
Best case, only certain applications would be affected when problems arise. Worst case, multiple systems would be stunted and entire system outages would occur.

UNCC needed a comprehensive IT infrastructure monitoring system to address these issues. The solution would have to serve both short-term (detecting problems in the 20TB storage infrastructure underpinning 137 servers running Linux, Solaris, Unix, NetWare, and Windows) and long-term (scaling to every aspect of the IT environment) goals. In short, any monitoring system would have to be flexible enough to adapt to the large, ever changing needs of the UNCC computing environment.

At first blush, due to the size of the IT environment and the capabilities required, an enterprise-class proprietary monitoring solution like HP OpenView or Compuware Vantage, which allow for extensive views of system components with intuitive dashboard interfaces, seemed the best option. However, because of the limited feature flexibility, UNCC would have to grow into the solution and risk running into intractable boundaries in the future as opposed to having the solution grow and expand with its environment. Further, the cost of buying, installing, and deploying this system was too much for the UNCC IT budget.

"Regarding our system, we were caught between a rock and a hard place. We needed a solution with enough power, reach, and flexibility to help us prevent system problems that could bring the university to a standstill, but we were working with a limited budget," said UNCC CTO Thomas Lamb. "The initial licensing fees for either OpenView or Vantage were in the hundreds of thousands of dollars and simply far beyond what our budget would allow. To get the customized dashboards we needed, we would have incurred additional consulting fees - the enterprise license agreements did not allow our staff to customize these systems. And when we talked about scalability with these vendors, the overall price tags began to approach the million-dollar mark."

That's when Lamb turned to open source. Open source solutions allow for the necessary flexibility and functionality but at a much lower cost than the proprietary solutions. For an IT environment as diverse and complex as that of UNCC, this flexibility was not only desirable, it was a necessity.

UNCC implemented GroundWork Monitor Professional from GroundWork Open Source. This solution gave the IT staff the luxury of curbing any problems in advance and keeping things running smoothly rather than retroactively repairing the damage and minimizing the effects of system failure on the university community.

Since implementing the open source IT infrastructure monitoring solution, unexpected service outages have been reduced, resulting in a 15% improvement in uptime. The IT staff can work more effectively, addressing problems in minutes instead of hours and dealing with most issues before they develop into real problems, so there has also been a major increase in system availability. Looking to the future, this top-to-bottom visibility lets IT staff maintain high levels of service to users, regardless of how much the UNCC network grows.

While proprietary solutions are effective in some upper-level Fortune 500 enterprise environments, they are often too expensive and not flexible or adaptable enough for a dynamic IT environment on a limited budget. For UNCC, open source fits just right.

More Stories By Jon Walker

Jon Walker serves as CTO of Versora, an ISV providing Microsoft to Linux migration software. Mr. Walker recently has co-authored 2 whitepapers with Novell titled Migrating from IS Web Servers to Apache SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9.0 and Migrating File and Print Servers from Windows to SUSE LINUX Enterprise Server 9. Prior to Versora, Mr. Walker was CTO/VP of Engineering for Miramar Systems. Software developed under his direction at Miramar has been deployed to over 20 million computers worldwide. Mr. Walker has also served as senior technologist for Nortel and Xing Technology (now Real Networks).

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